Guide to Seeing the LCROSS Lunar Impact

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The LCROSS spacecraft is going to impact the Moon on Friday, October 9, and here’s your chance to watch the action, either just for fun, or to contribute to scientific observations. Whether you want to observe with your own equipment or watch the event on television or a webcast, below you’ll find all the information and links you should need to be a part of history. Amateur astronomers need a 10-inch or bigger telescope to make observations.

When: Following the latest trajectory correction maneuvers, the time of impact on Friday, October 9, 2009 is 11:31:19 UTC for the Centaur and 11:35:45 for LCROSS spacecraft (7:31:19 a.m. EDT and 7:35:45 a.m. EDT).

The impact time may be refined as the time for impact comes closer. You can check the LCROSS mission Facebook and Twitter pages for the latest updates (and we’ll try to post it here as soon as possible after any changes are announced.) Also check this NASA website for more information.

Where: both spacecraft are targeting Cabeus crater. The impact site coordinates are -84.675, 311.275 E. Click here to download the Targeting Coordinates, Timing, and Finder Charts presentation for detailed information. (Powerpoint presentation.)

New Mexico State University and Marshal Space Flight Center have made finder charts available based on similar illumination and libration that we expect to see on the night of the impact.

In general, here’s where to look: Start with the south pole (bottom edge) and look for the terminator, or where the sunlight and shadow merge. Here’s what the Moon should look like:

Moon oct 9

Zoom in with your telescope and identify the Cabeus craters. The target is in Cabeus proper, near the bottom of the Moon. Here’s what it should look like, along with a notated image:

Craters on the Moon's south pole.
Craters on the Moon's south pole.

What will I see? Based on an projections, there should be a visible ejecta cloud rising to 6Km above the lunar surface and crater wall. Latest estimates of the Cabeus proper crater impact site indicate the first two or three kilometers of that plume height (the brightest parts) may not be viewable from Earth, but that the plume will hopefully have crater wall shadow behind it to help us see it. Impact design location is to maximize the amount of this in sunlight, but variables here will determine how much of it is actually illuminated, and it may be that only the high power instruments will see good contrast. But we don’t know for sure.

“We expect the debris plumes to be visible through mid-sized backyard telescopes—10 inches and larger,” says Brian Day of NASA/Ames. Day is an amateur astronomer and the Education and Public Outreach Lead for LCROSS. “The initial explosions will probably be hidden behind crater walls, but the plumes will rise high enough above the crater’s rim to be seen from Earth.”

See this page for more information.

What is actually going on? The 5,000-pound (2,270-kilogram) Centaur is expected to slam into Cabeus at a sharp angle at a speed of 5,600 mph (9,000 kilometers per hour). If all goes according to schedule, the shepherding vehicle, carrying nine science payloads, will follow the Centaur’s plunge into the moon, and send back data live to Earth. The Centaur’s collision is expected to create a crater roughly 60 or 70 feet wide (20 meters wide) and perhaps as much as 16 feet (5 meters) deep, ejecting approximately 385 tons of lunar dust and soil — and hopefully some ice. In addition to recording the collision, the shepherding spacecraft weighing, 1,500-pounds (700-kilograms) will fly through the regolith plume thrown up by the collision, just before it too slams into the lunar surface some four minutes later, kicking up its own smaller plume of debris, all the while using its sensors to look for telltale signs of water.

What if it is cloudy where I live, or I live in Europe/Asia and it is daytime, or I don’t have a telescope to watch?

You can watch the event on NASA TV, and here’s where you can watch it online.

Slooh is having a webcast and will have two telescopes trained on the impact site.

The Exploratorium is also showing a webcast.

If you want to watch with other space enthusiasts, check out this list of people and organizations that are sponsoring observing parties.

Also, if you are in Mumbai, India the Nehru Planetarium there has a free viewing of the event at 4 pm IST. (thanks for pradx on Twitter for that info.)

If you are in the Pasadena area, JPL’s Von Karman Auditorium will have a public viewing, opening the gates 3:00 am. local time.

SMART -1 Updates Image for LCROSS Impact

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Since the LCROSS team reloaded and switched which lunar crater they are targeting for impact with the spacecraft and its upper stage of the Centaur rocket on October 9, the SMART-1 team has reloaded as well, and has released an updated image of the new crater. LCROSS (Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite) will search for water ice on the Moon by making two impacts into Cabeus crater at the lunar South Pole. The impacts are scheduled for 11:31:19 UTC and 11:35:45 UTC.

Previously, the SMART-1 team had released an image of Cabeus A, the original target crater.
Bjoern Grieger, the liaison scientist for SMART-1’s AMIE camera, and Bernard Foing, ESA SMART-1 Project Scientist, searched through SMART-1’s database for images of Cabeus, taken four years ago. The
SMART-1 images are at high resolution as the spacecraft was near its closest distance of 500 km from the South Pole.

The Cabeus crater interior is permanently shadowed, so ice lying inside the crater could be protected from the Sun’s harsh rays. LCROSS will send the upper stage Centaur rocket crashing into Cabeus and a
shepherd spacecraft will fly into the plume of dust generated and measure its properties before making a second impact with the lunar surface. Astronomers will observe both impacts using ground and space-based telescopes. The SMART-1 spacecraft also concluded its mission with a controlled bouncing impact on September 3, 2006. The event was observed with ground-based telescopes (a “dry run” for LCROSS), and the flash from the impact was detected at infrared wavelengths.

“The Cabeus topographic features as observed by SMART-1 vary greatly during the lunar rotation and the yearly seasons due to the polar grazing illumination conditions,” said Foing. “The floor of Cabeus
near LCROSS targets shows a number of small craters and seems old enough to have accumulated water ice delivered from comets and water-rich asteroids, and might have kept it frozen in its shadowed
area.”

Source: ESA

NASA Tests New Robotic Lander for Future Moon, Asteroid Missions

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The best way to study the new-found water on the Moon would be with in-situ instruments. Since humans won’t be making any lunar landings for at least a decade, the next best option is robotic spacecraft. NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center is developing and testing a new robotic lander to explore not only the Moon, but also asteroids and Mars. This design is definitely next generation: it’s bigger than any lander yet and MSFC is currently testing the all-important final of reaching the destination: landing.

“Specifically, what we are doing at Marshall is identifying the terminal – or the final – phase of landing, and designing a robotic lander to meet those needs,” said Brian Mulac, a test engineer at Marshall, quoted in an article in the Huntsville Times. “That last part is the highest risk of setting down on the moon.”

Of course, parachutes can’t be used for landing on the Moon or asteroids, since neither destination has an atmosphere, so thrusters are key for landing.

Large, oval-shaped tanks on the craft are used to store fuel for thrusters. Thrusters guide the lander, controlling the vehicle’s altitude and speed for landing. An additional thruster on this test vehicle, above, offsets the effect of Earth’s gravity so that the other thrusters can operate as they would in a lunar environment.

Just in case the tests don’t go as planned, a huge net is place under the lander to catch the vehicle and avoid damaging it.

As the saying goes, it’s not the fall that’s dangerous, but the sudden stop.

Landing on Mars requires a different architecture, such as the Mars Science Laboratory’s sky-crane, because of the pesky, thin atmosphere on the Red Planet. Read our previous article with Rob Manning of JPL about the issues of landing large payloads on Mars.

Sources: Huntsville Times, Gizmodo

LRO Provides Flashback to 1966

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On June 2, 1966 the Surveyor 1 spacecraft soft landed on the Moon, the first US spacecraft to set down on another body. Now, 43 years later the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera has spotted this historic spacecraft, sitting silently on the Moon’s surface. The scene shows the spacecraft (annotated with an arrow, and the shadow shows up very well) just south of a 40 m diameter crater and about 110 m northwest of a 190 m diameter crater lined with boulders. The landing site is in the northeast corner of the Flamsteed Ring, a 100 km diameter impact crater almost completely buried by mare lavas such that all that remains exposed is the upper part of the original crater rim.

Surveyor 1 took its own picture on the Moon back in 1966. Credit: NASA
Surveyor 1 took its own picture on the Moon back in 1966. Credit: NASA

Surveyor 1 collected over 11,000 images, most during the first lunar day between landing and July 7, 1966. The spacecraft continued to operate until January 7, 1967. The Surveyor images demonstrated that the lunar surface was strong enough to support a landed vehicle or a human. The detailed images also indicated that the surface was composed of a granular material interpreted to be produced by the impact of various size meteors over billions of years.

And 43 years later we figured out some H20 and OH were also part of the mix.

See the entire image swath at the LROC site.

Source: LROC

LRO Takes Second, Closer Look at Apollo 11 Landing Site

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The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera has taken a second look at the Apollo 11 landing site. These images were taken before LRO reached its science orbit of 50 km (31 miles) above the Moon, but the lighting is different from the previous images it took of this region, providing more detail and a whole new look at this historic site. This time the Sun was 28 degrees higher in the sky, making for smaller shadows and bringing out subtle brightness differences on the surface. The look and feel of the site has changed dramatically. See below for a close-up view.

.”]NAC image blown up two times showing Tranquility Base [NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University].
The astronaut path to the TV camera is visible, and you may even be able to see the camera stand (arrow). You can identify two parts of the Early Apollo Science Experiments Package (EASEP) – the Lunar Ranging Retro Reflector (LRRR) and the Passive Seismic Experiment (PSE). Neil Armstrong’s tracks to Little West crater (33 m diameter) are also discernable (unlabeled arrow). His quick jaunt provided scientists with their first view into a lunar crater.

Nice going LROC!

This article was edited on Sept. 30 to correct a mistake about LRO’s orbit at the time these images were taken.
See our previous article on the first round of LROC’s images of various Apollo landing sites.

Source: LROC

LCROSS Team Changes Target Crater for Impact

LCROSS Mission

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Based on new analysis of the latest lunar data, the science team for NASA’s Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite mission (LCROSS) decided to change the target crater for impact from Cabeus A to Cabeus (proper). The decision was based on a consensus that Cabeus shows, with the greatest level of certainty, the highest hydrogen concentrations at the south pole. The most current terrain models provided by JAXA’s Kaguya spacecraft and the LRO Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter (LOLA) was important in the decision process, as the latest models show a small valley in an otherwise tall Cabeus perimeter ridge, which will allow for sunlight to illuminate the ejecta cloud, making it easier to see from Earth.

The decisison was based on continued evaluation of all available data and consultation/input from members of the LCROSS Science Team and the scientific community, including impact experts, ground and space based observers, and observations from (LRO), Lunar Prospector (LP), Chandrayaan-1 and JAXA’s Kaguya spacecraft. This decision was prompted by the current best understanding of hydrogen concentrations in the Cabeus region, including cross-correlation between the latest LRO results and LP data sets.

As for the sunlight illuminating the ejecta cloud on Oct. 9, it should show up much better than previously estimated for Cabeus. While the ejecta does have to fly to higher elevations to be observed by Earth telescopes and observers, a shadow cast by a large hill along the Cabeus ridge, provides an excellent, high-contrast, back drop for ejecta and vapor measurements.

See this link for how to observe the impact from Earth. Eastern and central north America has the best chance of seeing the impact.

The LCROSS team concluded that Cabeus provided the best chance for meeting its mission goals. The team critically assessed and successfully advocated for the change with the Lunar Precursor Robotic Program (LPRP) office. The change in impact crater was factored into LCROSS’ most recent Trajectory Correction Maneuver, TCM7.

During the last days of the mission, the LCROSS team will continue to refine the exact point of impact within Cabeus crater to avoid rough spots, and to maximize solar illumination of the debris plume and Earth observations.

Source: LCROSS

SMART-1 Releases Image of LCROSS Impact Site

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ESA’s SMART-1 team has released an image of the future impact site of NASA’s Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS). The SMART-1 team searched through their database to find images of Cabeus A, where LCROSS will search for water ice by making two impacts into this crater at the lunar south pole. The impacts are scheduled for 11:30 and 11:34 am UT on 9 October 2009. This image was taken four years ago by SMART-1, a spacecraft that ended its mission in 2006 by deliberately crashing to the Moon, similar to what LCROSS will do, hoping to exhume materials buried under the lunar surface, particularly water ice. “This is like gathering evidence for a Crash Scene Investigation, but before the action takes place,” said Bernard Foing, SMART-1 project scientist.

Cabeus A is permanently shadowed, so ice lying inside the crater could be protected from the Sun’s harsh rays. LCROSS will send the upper stage Centaur rocket crashing into Cabeus A and a shepherd spacecraft will fly into the plume of dust generated and measure its properties before making a second impact with the lunar surface. Astronomers will observe both impacts using ground and space-based telescopes. The SMART-1 spacecraft also concluded its mission with a controlled bouncing impact on 3 September 2006. The event was observed with ground-based telescopes and the flash from the impact was detected at infrared wavelengths.

Find out more about observing the LCROSS event here.

Foing and Bjoern Grieger, the liaison scientist for SMART-1’s AIMIE camera searched through SMART-1’s database for images of Cabeus A, taken four years ago at conditions where solar elevation and direction were similar to those of LCROSS impact. The SMART-1 image is at high resolution as the spacecraft was at its closest distance of 500 km from the South Pole.

“We are pleased to contribute these ESA SMART-1 observations of the LCROSS target site in order to help in the planning and interpretation of impact observations,” said Foing. “The coordination and exchange of information between lunar missions is an important step for future exploration of the Moon. Cooperation is vital if we are ever to see ‘villages’ of robotic landers and eventual lunar bases, as recommended by the International Lunar Exploration Working Group.”

Source: AlphaGalileo

Water on the Moon: What Does it Mean?

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The Moon has been turned upside down. Figuratively, of course. La Luna still orbits and phases as it always has, but we are now looking at the moon anew. From this day forward we know the chemistry of the Moon is different than what we have thought for decades, the geology might vary from what is in textbooks today, and the physics of how the solar wind interacts with a rocky body without an atmosphere has implications not yet fully investigated. So, what does this mean for our future human and robotic exploration of our closest companion in space?

“The Moon continues to surprise us,” said Carle Pieters, principal investigator for the Moon Mineralogy Mapper (M cubed) at Thursdays press conference. “Widespread water has been detected on the surface of the Moon. You have to think outside of the box on this. This is not what any of us expected decades ago.”

Immediately, space enthusiasts’ thoughts turn to how finding water on the Moon will make future exploration there so much easier.

“Scientists thought they knew fairly accurately what the surface of the moon was like and these results show that they didn’t – or at least not completely,” said Dr. Chris Welch, astronautics and space systems expert at Kingston University in London. “Finding so much more water could make living on the moon much easier in the future…If there is water on the moon – in whatever form – then we have a potential reservoir that could be used for drinking or to make into hydrogen and oxygen which could be used as rocket propellant. Also, of course, we could use the oxygen to breathe.”

But the message the scientists wanted everyone to take away from today’s press conference is that a combination of water (H2O) and hydroxyl (OH) that resides in upper millimeter of the lunar surface doesn’t actually amount to much. The average amount of water, if extracted, is about a quart (1 liter) of water per ton of surface soil, or about 16 ounces (.5 liters) of water might be present for every 1,000 pounds (450 kg) of surface soil near the moon’s poles. For soil near the equator, only about two tablespoons of water is believed to be present in every 1,000 pounds (450 kg).

“That is truly astounding, and generating much excitement,” said Jim Green, director of the Planetary Science Division at NASA. “But please keep in mind that even the driest deserts on the Earth have more water than are at the poles and the surfaces of the moon.”

So maybe this water on the Moon is not such a big deal.

But there’s still the very real possibility that there could be water ice underneath the regolith on the Moon or buried deep within craters at the poles. Fairly recent (within the past million years) impact craters on the moon were found to have ejecta “rich” with water and hydroxyl, according to M cubed data, which implies recently those molecules are buried under the surface.

Plus the scientists hinted at data showing Goldschmidt Crater at the Moon’s north pole could be filled with water ice.

The image on the left shows albedo, or the sunlight reflected from the surface of the moon. The image on the right shows where infrared light is absorbed in the characteristic manner that indicates the presence of water and hydroxyl molecules. That image shows that signature most strongly at the cool, high latitudes near the poles. The blue arrow indicates Goldschmidt crater, a large feldspar-rich region with a higher water and hydroxyl signature.  Image credit: ISRO/NASA/JPL-Caltech/Brown Univ.
The image on the left shows albedo, or the sunlight reflected from the surface of the moon. The image on the right shows where infrared light is absorbed in the characteristic manner that indicates the presence of water and hydroxyl molecules. That image shows that signature most strongly at the cool, high latitudes near the poles. The blue arrow indicates Goldschmidt crater, a large feldspar-rich region with a higher water and hydroxyl signature. Image credit: ISRO/NASA/JPL-Caltech/Brown Univ.

Additionally, what the scientists at today’s briefing found most astonishing about the new findings is that the water and hydroxyl show up at all latitudes, even at the equator in sunlight, where it is quite hot, and that there are a wide variety of hydroxyl bearing minerals at the surface. This is telling us there are some dynamic processes happening on a moon we thought to be bone dry and basically dead.

There appears to be a cycle of water being created and lost during a lunar day. Without an atmosphere, the moon is exposed to solar wind, which includes hydrogen ions. The hydrogen is able to interact with oxygen in lunar soil to create water molecules. The water appears to be created at night on the Moon, lost during the “hottest” parts of the two-week lunar day; then as it cools near evening, the cycle repeats itself. So, regardless of the type of terrain on the Moon, the entire surface of the moon will be hydrated at least for part of the day. The scientists said similar hydration effects may be present on any body in our solar system that doesn’t have an atmosphere, including asteroids and Mercury.

Those implications are huge for our explorations of other moons and worlds.

But back to the Moon. “Before this press conference, it was thought to be impossible to have water on the surface of the Moon in hot sunlight, especially on the surface at the equator,” said Roger Clark, with the M cubed and Cassini mission.

Small amounts of water and hydroxyl (blue) were detected on the surface of the moon at various locations. This image illustrates their distribution at high latitudes toward the poles.  Image credit: ISRO/NASA/JPL-Caltech/Brown Univ./USGS
Small amounts of water and hydroxyl (blue) were detected on the surface of the moon at various locations. This image illustrates their distribution at high latitudes toward the poles. Image credit: ISRO/NASA/JPL-Caltech/Brown Univ./USGS

Could water be a renewable resource on the Moon? If the water is constantly being created, could a devise be built to extract or collect the water? Easy availability of water would have an immense impact on any future human exploration on the Moon, be it brief sorties or permanent colonies.

This is intriguing,” said Pieters, “but we need to go back and re-determine this silicate surface and the vacuum around it. This is an environment we know very little about, and the physics is in its infancy.”

Discussing the implications, Pieters said first, the source of the water needs to be determined, whether it is actually from the solar wind, comets, meteorites, possibly an outgassing from the interior. “There are fundamental questions we need to understand about this silicate body,” she said. “Clearly this has to be a marriage between geology and space physics.”

And what about the “follow the water” mantra NASA has been following in regards to Mars? Could the “where there’s water, there’s life” hypothesis pertain to the Moon? Is there water on the Moon? While these new details about the Moon are groundbreaking, Welch does not believe the new findings show there is or could once have been life on the moon, but he says further research is needed. “There need to be more detailed science missions, preferably with astronauts landing on the moon, to analyse the soil in space.”

Certainly, the upcoming LCROSS impact on the Moon’s south pole will be watched with even greater interest. But what about future exploration?

Will this impel the Constellation Program to continue as planned with a return to the Moon? The Obama administration has some big decision to make in regards to NASA, and it’s hard to imagine this new information about the Moon won’t have some impact on the future path the space agency will take.

We can only hope this news brings more public and congressional interest in NASA’s future.

Yes, There’s Water on the Moon

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Three different spacecraft have confirmed there is water on the Moon. It hasn’t been found in deep dark craters or hidden underground. Data indicate that water exists diffusely across the moon as hydroxyl or water molecules — or both — adhering to the surface in low concentrations. Additionally, there may be a water cycle in which the molecules are broken down and reformulated over a two week cycle, which is the length of a lunar day. This does not constitute ice sheets or frozen lakes: the amounts of water in a given location on the Moon aren’t much more than what is found in a desert here on Earth. But there’s more water on the Moon than originally thought.

The Moon was believed to extremely dry since the return of lunar samples from the Apollo and Luna programs. Many Apollo samples contain some trace water or minor hydrous minerals, but these have typically been attributed to terrestrial contamination since most of the boxes used to bring the Moon rocks to Earth leaked. This led the scientists to assume that the trace amounts of water they found came from Earth air that had entered the containers. The assumption remained that, outside of possible ice at the moon’s poles, there was no water on the moon.

Forty years later, an instrument on board the ill-fated Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft, the Moon Mineralogy Mapper (M cubed) found that infrared light was being absorbed near the lunar poles at wavelengths consistent with hydroxyl- and water-bearing materials.

M3 analyzes the way that light from the sun reflects off the lunar surface to understand what materials comprise the lunar soil. Light is reflected in different wavelengths off of different minerals, and specifically, the instrument detected wavelengths of reflected light that would indicate a chemical bond between hydrogen and oxygen. Given water’s well-known chemical symbol, H2O, which represents two hydrogen atoms bonded to one oxygen atom, this discovery was a source of great interest to the researchers.

The instrument can only see the very uppermost layers of the lunar soil – perhaps to a few centimeters below the surface. The scientists were looking for a signature of water in the craters near the poles, but found evidence for water instead on the sunlit portions of the moon. This was certainly unexpected and the science team from M3 looked and re-looked at their data for several months.

Confirmation came from a recent flyby of the re-purposed Deep Impact probe, on its way to rendezvous with another comet in 2010. In June of 2009, the spectrometer on board also showed strong evidence that water is ubiquitous over the surface of the moon.

Jessica Sunshine and colleagues with Deep Impact also found the presence of bound water or hydroxyl in trace amounts over much of the Moon’s surface. Their results suggest that the formation and retention of these molecules is an ongoing process on the lunar surface – and that solar wind could be responsible for forming them.

Still another spacecraft, the Cassini spacecraft while on its way to Saturn, also flew by the Moon in 1999. Roger Clark, a U.S. Geological Survey spectroscopist on the M3 team, reanalyzed archival data from Cassini, and that data as well agreed with the finding that water appears to be widespread across the lunar surface.

There are potentially two types of water on the moon: exogenic, meaning water from outside sources, such as comets striking the moon’s surface, and endogenic, meaning water that originates on the moon. The M3 research team, which includes Larry Taylor of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, suspect that the water they’re seeing in the moon’s surface is endogenic.

But where did the water come from?

The team from M3 believe it may come from the solar wind.

As the sun undergoes nuclear fusion, it constantly emits a stream of particles, mostly protons, which are positively charged hydrogen atoms. On Earth, the atmosphere and magnetism prevent us from being bombarded by these protons, but the moon lacks that protection, meaning the oxygen-rich minerals and glasses on the surface of the moon are constantly pounded by hydrogen in the form of protons, moving at velocities of one-third the speed of light.

When those protons hit the lunar surface with enough force, suspects Taylor, they break apart oxygen bonds in soil materials, and where free oxygen and hydrogen are together, there’s a high chance that trace amounts of water will be formed. These traces are thought to be about a quart of water per ton of soil.

“The isotopes of oxygen that exist on the moon are the same as those that exist on Earth, so it was difficult if not impossible to tell the difference between water from the moon and water from Earth,” said Taylor. “Since the early soil samples only had trace amounts of water, it was easy to make the mistake of attributing it to contamination.”

Lead image caption: Schematic showing the stream of charged hydrogen ions carried from the Sun by the solar wind. One possible scenario to explain hydration of the lunar surface is that during the daytime, when the Moon is exposed to the solar wind, hydrogen ions liberate oxygen from lunar minerals to form OH and H2O, which are then weakly held to the surface. At high temperatures (red-yellow) more molecules are released than adsorbed. When the temperature decreases (green-blue) OH and H2O accumulate. Image courtesy of University of Maryland/F. Merlin/McREL

Source: Science

First Science Data from LRO; ‘Tantalizing’ Hints of Water

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The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has successfully completed its testing and calibration phase and is now in its science and mapping orbit of the moon. Already, the spacecraft has made significant progress in creating the most detailed atlas of the moon’s south pole, and Thursday mission scientists reported some of the early science results, including “tantalizing” hints of water at the Moon’s south pole. So far, the data returned from LRO’s seven instruments “exceed our wildest expectations,” said Richard Vondrak, LRO project scientist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center . “We’re looking at the moon now with new eyes.”

Last Tuesday, a final maneuver put LRO 50 km (31 miles) above the Moon, closer than any previous orbiter. LRO has already proved its keen eyes, imaging fine details of the Apollo landing sites earlier this summer with the LROC, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera.

Coldest place in the solar system

According to the first measurements from the Diviner instrument, which has infrared radiation detectors, LRO found that temperatures at about 35 Kelvin, or -238º Celsius deep in some permanently shaded regions. Vondrak said that these bitterly cold regions at the south pole “are perhaps the coldest part of the solar system.” With such cold temperatures, volatiles like water ice could be present, preserved for billions of years.

This image shows neutron flux detections around the lunar south pole from LEND. Credit: NASA/Institute for Space Research (Moscow)
This image shows neutron flux detections around the lunar south pole from LEND. Credit: NASA/Institute for Space Research (Moscow)

And indeed, first results from LRO’s Lunar Exploration Neutron Detector, or LEND instrument found hallmarks of hydrogen—a potential marker of water— not only in deep, dark craters, but in unexpected places as well.

“What it also seems to indicate is that the hydrogen is not confined to permanently shadowed craters,” said Vondrak. “Some of the permanently shadowed craters do indeed contain hydrogen. Others, on the other hand, do not appear to have hydrogen. And in addition, there appears to be concentrations of hydrogen that are not confined to the permanently shadowed regions.”


Surface topography

This mosaic shows altitude measurements from the LOLA instrument. Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center
This mosaic shows altitude measurements from the LOLA instrument. Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

Data from LRO’s Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter, or LOLA, give scientists a detailed look at the topography of the lunar south pole, shown here. Red regions are high altitude, and blue regions are low altitude.

Some of the first results have turned up fresh craters, unknown boulders, and smooth sites that would be good landing sites for future humans or robotic missions. However, most regions are filled with rough terrain, which will make in situ exploration difficult. The roughness is probably a result of the lack of atmosphere and absence of erosion from wind or water, according to David Smith, LOLA principal investigator.

Another instrument, LRO’s Cosmic Ray Telescope for the Effects of Radiation instrument is exploring the lunar radiation environment and its potential effects on humans during record high, “worst-case” cosmic ray intensities accompanying the extreme solar minimum conditions of this solar cycle, showing damaging amounts of radiation at various points.

This Mini-RF image shows radar imagery of the lunar south pole. Credit: NASA/APL/LPI
This Mini-RF image shows radar imagery of the lunar south pole. Credit: NASA/APL/LPI

The Mini RF Technology Demonstration on LRO has confirmed communications capability and produced detailed radar images of potential targets for LRO’s companion mission, LCROSS, the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite, which will impact the moon’s south pole on Oct. 9.

LRO’s prime science mission will last a year.

“The LRO instruments, spacecraft, and ground systems continue to operate essentially flawlessly,” said Craig Tooley, LRO project manager at Goddard “The team completed the planned commissioning and calibration activities on time and also got a significant head start collecting data even before we moved to the mission’s mapping orbit.”

“There’s still an awful lot to be done,” says Michael Wargo, chief lunar scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C. “And the maps will only get better.”

See more information, including more images and flyover videos here.